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Asimo steps closer to Honda’s Astro Boy goal

by Tim Hornyak

Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo is so amazingly graceful for a machine that it’s hard to believe there isn’t a man inside that walking spacesuit.

In the 1980s, engineers at the automaker began with a pair of mechanical legs and a dream of creating a robot that could be a “partner for people” — they were told to make comic hero Astro Boy.

Unveiled in 2000, Asimo represents an engineering triumph for its mastery of human locomotion. Honda’s ‘bot can walk, jog and climb or descend stairs just like a person, and it can also do a pretty mean calisthenics routine. In the Asimo Theater at the Great Robot Exhibition, Asimo is presented in a stage show that envisions him as a member of the family, showing off skills such as kicking a soccer ball and fetching a tray of drinks in response to simulated e-mails from the parents and children.

The machine, whose hulking predecessors P2 and P3 are also on display, remains the most convincing envoy from a robot future that is all about people and machines living together happily. Honda wants to present Asimo less as a high-tech ambassador performing on stage (he does a regular show at Disneyland in California) and more as someone in the family who’s eager to help out. One scenario in the exhibition show imagines Asimo delivering a set of keys to a downstairs parking garage after getting a call from the father of the household.

But one of the biggest obstacles to having a handy robot like Asimo around the home is smarts. “Artificial intelligence is a huge field,” says lead inventor Masato Hirose. “We’re working on an important part — getting the robot to understand its surroundings through environmental sensing technology. It’s a preliminary step before real AI. Our hope is to commercialize Asimo over the next five to 10 years.”

For related story:
Japan traces robots’ past, future